Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library Crime Classics) ISBN-13: 978-0712356961 / Continental Crimes (British Library Crime Classics) ISBN-13: 978-0712356794
Of course most crime novels are ephemeral, even among the best of them, belonging, as they do, to a particular moment; where the chief engine is the plot, good writing is not always easy to find. It might be remembered that the Stockholm series by Sjöwall and Wahlöö was out of print for years, eventually resuscitated by expanding acceptance of translated books. The British Library’s brave initiative to bring back lost authors has, therefore, unusual merit. They have had the great good sense to issue print books of good quality and to create recognizable cover pictures, which attract the eye of browsers looking for a good read. They are relatively inexpensive. The BL have advantages: the most outstanding collection of British (and some American) crime fiction imaginable. Changes to copyright in the last few years means that the five great deposit libraries in Britain are now receiving electronic copies rather than the print books they used to get for free—so much more convenient, it’s said, for storage. But it’s not clear what will in fact be reliable in, say, ten years’ time, when changes in platforms will risk making those e-copies legible. As it is, readers have to sit at designated terminals in the various libraries to read the e-books. Foreign fiction is another story, since the deposit libraries, like everyone else, have to stump up and buy them. Soon, then, it won’t be so easy to pick and choose among long lost fictions of any kind. Much depends upon memory and experience.
Enter Martin Edwards, who has been a consultant for the BL crime series since 2014. Given the breadth and depth of his knowledge, having him there to write prefaces in several of the BL’s series is a bonus. He has recently written a soon-to-be published survey of crime fiction. His title alludes to Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects. But this is not quite a ‘history’, rather a large number of potted plots which nevertheless manage not to give much away. There is no guiding argument about why which books made the cut, or what his criteria for inclusion were. Nor are there reflections on the changing face of crime fiction, not even a glance at gender, race, nationalism, codes for the gay, or the insidious face of anti-semitism, taken for granted throughout the first half of the 20th century (too early for the mass-migration hatreds that fuel, say, anti-Islamic prejudice). Subgenres are not labelled or discussed. Women are mostly victims, except when they’re murderers. The creation of a place—which Edwards is good at in his own fictional Liverpool—is mostly generic countryside, country houses, and a plethora of locked rooms. The volume contains two useful indices, which will be helpful for navigation. It also contains a bibliography which will make Edwards popular among those who might want to read more on the subject. Me, for example. And, hard on the heels of ‘100 Books’ comes an anthology of fourteen crime stories set on the Continent. Edwards writes his prefaces with a light touch, so there is little analysis or musing on history, and the short introductions to each story don’t explain why they’ve been included. Quality is variable, as one would expect, from dross to delight. The E. Phillips Oppenheim story is especially egregious, being overlong and all too obvious, as is the first story, which is shorter, but reveals the guilty party in the first two pages. The most amusing is H. C. Bailey’s amateur sleuth, Reginald Fortune, in ‘The Long Dinner’. In addition to a lot of food and drink from which the English detective, Lomas, is more or less excluded. Bailey has a wonderful running joke about the French colleague, Dubois who has fluent English, except that its excellence depends upon Dubois’ use of French phrases literally transformed into English. Otherwise there is more of the usual implicit stereotyping, xenophobia, and class assumptions that so marked English detection for so long. Perhaps my reservations have to do with a perception that there’s a stooping to the uninitiated reader, but I’d label this book a tempting ‘pot-boiler’ without a moment’s hesitation.